This week, America’s President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, claiming that it would throttle America’s economic growth and destroy jobs.
The decision is disappointing and disturbing. Not only is America the second-largest polluter in the world, it has, over the years, emitted more planet-warming carbon dioxide than any other country.
As tempting as it might be for some of the other 194 co-signing countries to walk away from the Paris accord, that would be a mistake of historic proportions. America’s withdrawal is an opportunity for the rest of the world, including Africa, to step up and fill the void.
For Africa, the choice is between doing the easy thing and doing the right thing. With the lowest levels of industrialisation in the world, cheap but dirty energy sources such as coal, or older polluting technology and manufacturing methods can be especially alluring amid a pressure to grow economies and create jobs.
Yet climate change poses an existential threat to us. Although the continent produces two per cent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions, it is expected to bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change and global warming.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Africa is expected to warm up to one-and-a-half times faster than the global average, with devastating results. The current famine and food shortages in the Horn of Africa that have led to higher food prices in Kenya and other parts of East Africa can be attributed to changing weather patterns brought about by climate change.
Without action it will only get worse. IPCC has warned of a 30 per cent drop in maize yields in Zimbabwe and Zambia by 2050 due to climate change. One study, using IPCC data, found that Chad, Niger and Zambia could lose their entire farming sectors by 2100 if global warming continues at its current pace.
Unpredictable rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, flooding and other outcomes of climate change will put the lives of millions of Africans, many of who still live off the land, at risk.
President Trump’s about-turn on the Paris accord should serve as a wakeup call for Africans to start taking climate change into our own hands. If those that pollute the world’s environment are not willing to step up and help clean it we Africans must roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.
Thankfully we are not alone. China, the world’s biggest polluter, says it is committed to the Paris accord. Similarly, the European Union has said it “will defend the clean energy transition.”
African leaders, too, should reconfirm their commitment to the Paris accord.
Advances in clean energy sources like wind, solar and hydroelectricity, coupled with exponential reductions in the cost of their production, mean that Africa does not have to face zero-sum choices in powering its industries or lighting up its homes. Managed well, the Congo Basin can produce cheap and clean hydropower for the continent, support life and agriculture, and keep people from cutting down trees for energy.
The mobile telecommunications revolution in Africa has taught us that with a little imagination, enlightened policies and political will the continent can leapfrog across technological chasms that divide it from the rest of the world. We must now apply the same ingenuity to create economic opportunity without destroying our environment.
In many cases, the damage has already been done and Africa, like the rest of the world, is running out of time. But we must not allow ourselves to be dragged into a race to the bottom. Of what use is it for one to achieve wealth only to lose one’s soul and the only planet we have?
Kaddu Sebunya is the president of the African Wildlife Foundation.